April 14, 2009

Infinite Intricacies: Digging Deeper

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At first glace, Merrill Shatzman’s work seems to convey some sort of message, carrying traces of symbols and patterns that appear to be jumping off the page, just waiting to be decoded. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that any message she attempts to convey is infinitely multi-faceted, as increasingly more layers of etchings and connections reveal themselves. In a statement, she says her work “… questions and examines the ‘universal language’ created by signs, symbols and pre-imagined images … us[ing] surroundings as both an idea and an artifact.” She describes her muse as graphic communication, markings and forms that have the ability to convey meanings through simple rearrangements and displacements of lines and curves.
Shatzman generates her inspiration from nearly any graphic source, anything from maps to photographs, language to landscapes. In her eyes, anything can be broken down into a composition of lines and forms — just as a computer program can read and breakdown an image into vector graphics or raster image format, so can Shatzman’s mind decode the world around her into simple patterns and forms. After selecting the source for her work, noting primarily how it communicates and by what visual means it transmits this information, she then transposes this language into etchings and engravings.
Her work is typically carried out in the form of woodcut prints mounted and juxtaposed against others. The source of these prints, an impossibly minutely detailed woodblock etching — complete with lines spaced a mere millimeters apart, delicate curves, and shallow excavations — must be meticulously and painstakingly carved away in a process that must take weeks or even months on end. Her etchings are so exact and so carefully scraped away, it can only be compared to something as impossible as finding a needle in a haystack. It’s a wonder she’s able to craft such quality and still retain her eyesight.
After she completes the woodcut, she then uses graphite ink to coat the raised, unexcavated surfaces, and produce a two-dimensional print that records the solids, voids and even textures that were created by her cuts. Like a thoroughly mapped plan, the poché of her prints — the contrast of darks against lights and varying strengths of ink weights — conveys a third dimension, a geometry of physical space. The depth of her works is sometimes accentuated by a physical layering of prints upon other prints, creating a sort of relief construction, which further represents the topographies of the landscapes and systems that she represents. The paper she selects, ranging from silk to Lokta bark to Western and Japanese papers add to the complexity of her works, creating different rhythms, textures and even meanings with a mere change in material.
The resulting compositions display, in her words, “the comparison, contradiction, and universality of language within landscape … communicating the energy found in the signage surrounding us informed by these graphic sources.” By taking the essences of how her visual stimuli interplay to communicate and reinterpreting, translating and recoding them into a comparable language of different materials, techniques and processes, she creates an entirely new work with different interactions and ultimately a different communicated spirit and effect. While there are aspects that still retain links to their original forms, all together they create a completely different transpiration of energy and signs. In this manner, Shatzman is able to seamlessly weave geography, linguistics, even religion and philosophy, into a single creation, creating an endless physically and figuratively layered piece of visual communication, one with multiple identities, countless meanings and an infinite means of analysis.
Merrill Shatzman’s dizzingly intricate works can be viewed at the Johnson Museum through July 5th.